The real victims of the SABC disaster

Hlaudi Motsoeneng former SABC COO
Hlaudi Motsoeneng former SABC COO
A few weeks ago, a family member popped round for Sunday lunch. As we chatted over a good meal, he spoke about a friend who has been working as a contractor for the SABC.

“She is panicking,” he said. “She doesn’t know if they were going to get paid, never mind if their contracts would be renewed.” At the SABC headquarters, talk was that things were bad. 

At a Saturday brunch a week earlier, another friend revealed that he’d heard stories of production companies not getting paid.

“We’re continuing on with this season of the show, but we have no idea what will happen with next season,” said an employee at such a company. “If we don’t get the money, we won’t be able to make the show and I will be out of work.” 

A few weeks later, at another Sunday lunch, more guests lamented their uncertain futures at the state broadcaster. 

These second-hand accounts made me think about all the SABC employees whom I had spoken to last year during my investigation of the rot that had set in at the company (see Fraud, lies and videotape, 23 February 2016 edition of finweek).

I’d spoken to people who had suffered under the tyranny of former SABC chief operating officer Hlaudi Motsoeneng, a man still singing his own praises from the rooftops. 

So much so that his recent press conference, where he attacked the interim board and mocked the parliamentary inquiry into the affairs of the SABC, has resulted in fresh disciplinary charges for allegedly bringing the broadcaster into disrepute. 

Content suffers

Those SABC staffers, who had bravely spoken to me while facing an incredibly hostile work environment, were now the ones on the receiving end of the public broadcaster’s collapse. Their families – their children – will pay the price for the culture of unaccountability that infected the institution. 

Meanwhile rumours are flying that soon even full-time SABC staffers could face not being paid. There is a sentiment that the current financial crisis is causing more damage than the one in 2009 and is only going to get worse. 

Obviously the knock-on effects on SABC scheduling are going to happen with speculation that from this month, the SABC is going to be forced to dip into library content to cut costs. Viewers are likely to see an increase in old repeats. There have also been reports that subtitling will be done away with this month. 

Bailout needed

The state broadcaster recently confirmed that it is in talks with National Treasury and the department of communications to secure a guarantee, after it failed to pay some of its content suppliers in March and April. The SABC’s interim board is reportedly seeking at least R1bn. 

“It’s bad. It’s bad,” were the words used by the SABC’s interim board chair Khanyisile Kweyama when speaking to media recently about the broadcaster’s financial situation. Kweyama admitted that things were so dire that the interim board didn’t know exactly how much of a guarantee was going to be needed.  

The interim board’s deputy chair Mathatha Tsedu told Parliament recently that the SABC had lost over R200m because of Motsoeneng’s unilateral 90% local quota and that the SABC would be reversing the decision: “A lot of stupid decisions were made without applying intelligence.” He added that these changes had led to lower viewer numbers and a subsequent loss of advertising. 

High-level decisions like reversing the 90% quota, appointing new executives, revising editorial policies and addressing commissioning processes are vital and cannot happen overnight. 

The true victims

But it’s important not to forget that the people bearing the major brunt of this manufactured crisis are the employees. And it’s important that those who caused this mess are not left to simply continue with their lives as if nothing had happened. 

Throwing the book at them is the right thing to do, not just for the workers, or the viewers, but because it will send an important message about the new SABC that is going to be built.  

Kweyama has told media that the interim board wants Motsoeneng to be afforded a fair disciplinary hearing when his proceedings get under way. In addition, the DA has talked of plans to write to the interim board calling for current SABC CEO and former chief financial officer James Aguma to be suspended. The party argues that under Aguma’s watch, the state broadcaster’s cash reserves shrank from R1.5bn in 2014 to just under R200m in 2016. 

It’s an almighty mess that is going to take time to resolve. 

While that gets done, let’s not disrespect the workers’ struggle in the face of adversity. It’s important to send a message that SABC staff should never have to bear the brunt of a crisis like this again.

This article originally appeared in the 18 May edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.
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